Last season, we at Razzball buried ourselves deeper into our nerd basements and gave you a weekly update and recommendations based on NFL Air Yards. That’s right. We were looking at footballs thrown in the air, even if THEY DON’T GET CAUGHT. That’s how committed we are to 1) the spreadsheets, and 2) having not one single social life among us. Would we dare bring it back for year two? Do air yards even matter?
Whenever you get a stat that is as predictive and actionable as air yards, you bet your nerdy ass it matters. What in the name of Dungeons and Dragons is air yards? Glad you asked. Let’s dig in.
Air Yards: Common, Accessible, and Effective
The concept and application of Air Yards was popularized in 2018 by Josh Hermsmeyer, although the concept and utilization has been around for quite a while longer. In terms of the Next Big Thing, air yards are now closer to the Razr phone than they are to the iPhone 14, but their utilization is still second to none when trying to mine the hidden gems during the fantasy football season.
Essentially air yards measure how far downfield a target was thrown to its intended receiver; whether the pass was caught or not. It is a component of the uber-popular average depth of target (aDOT), serving as the numerator with total targets the denominator.
It is meant to be a more holistic look at a receiver’s involvement and route tree than just targets. High air yards can mean one of two things. First, it could be a high volume of short- to intermediate-targets to a receiver. Or, it could mean a smaller number of much longer targets. But Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel will have more to say on that later.
Knowing a receiver’s air yards and his aDOT can give you a quick, back-of-the-envelope look at how a receiver is used. Compare that to his actual receiving yards over a period of time, and you’ve got yourself some good ol’ fashioned regression candidates.
Sounds Fancy, So What?
Let’s pull up some 2021 numbers from both receiving yards and air yards to see what stands out. Here you see the top-15 in receiving yards for wide receivers last year next to the top-15 wide receiver leaders in air yards.
The first thing that will slap you in the face is that nine of these 15 names overlap. So yes, there is a strong correlation between high air yards and high receiving yards. In fact, 14 of the top 15 in overall receiving yards fell within the top 22 of total air yards.
But that leaves eight other players. What about these guys that were also in that top-22 of air yards? Who are they? It’s not newsworthy to proclaim that players like Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill had buckets of air yards and also were near the top of the league in receiving yards. What can we learn from the other names?
Here, in order from highest to lowest air yards, are those other eight wide receivers plus their 2021 finish in receiving yards.
4. Terry McLaurin, 1,758 air yards (18th)
5. Marquise Brown, 1,687 air yards (23rd)
8. DK Metcalf, 1,661 air yards (25th)
9. Courtland Sutton, 1,635 air yards (38th)
13. Darnell Mooney, 1,556 air yards (17th)
15. Brandin Cooks, 1,544 air yards (20th)
17. Devonta Smith, 1,518 air yards (26th)
19. Marvin Jones, 1,460 air yards (33rd)
Six of these eight players have massive discrepancies between their seasonal finish in total air yards and their finish in total receiving yards. How can that be? How can Courtland Sutton finish ninth in air yards, but just 38th in receiving yards?
You probably guessed it: terrible quarterback play. The quarterbacks for these eight receivers for the majority of the year were Taylor Heinicke, Lamar Jackson, Geno Smith, Justin Fields, Teddy Bridgewater, Drew Lock, Davis Mills, Jalen Hurts, and Trevor Lawrence.
What this shows us is that these eight were some of the most prolific receivers in earning targets last year, but their poor quarterback accuracy prevented them from reaching the receiving yard heights they otherwise would have. Marquise Brown’s average yards per reception fell by more than two yards compared to 2020. He was used differently than his first two years, which is how he winds up as the outlier on this list.
Looking at which of these are coming into 2022 with improved quarterback situations can give us a quick and dirty look at who might see positive regression. It’s part of the reason I am so high on Courtland Sutton this year with the upgrade to Russell Wilson. Others who can count on better QB play are potentially McLaurin, Cooks, Smith, and Jones.
What we will attempt to do in this weekly piece is break apart these macro-stories into micro-stories we can use to identify value. On a week-to-week basis, this air yards regression column will look to tell these micro-stories of how a player has done their past few games and try to determine if we can expect positive or negative regression in the weeks ahead.
When Deebo Leave, I Be Talking Again
OK, Smokey. We will get to Deebo Samuel now.
In the Air Yards Primer last season, thanks to my greatest moment of prognostication to date, we specifically identified Cooper Kupp as a potential air yards model-breaker. We noted that air yards can’t really accurately predict a shorter-aDOT, yards-after-the-catch monster like C-Kupp. Like the true nerds we are, we would just look at all this nice stuff in front of us and not know what to do with it.
Kupp, of course, was a record-breaker as he increased his career aDOT, saw a massive volume spike, and remained our YAC king in 2021. But he wasn’t the only outlier in a strong season overall for the wide receiver position. Deebo Samuel put up a season unlike any we have ever seen, and I don’t mean with the rushing production. Samuel produced a completely unsustainable yards-after-the-catch rate and people are grabbing him in drafts like it is going to happen again.
Consider this. Since 1980, there have been four seasons where a wide receiver had 77 or fewer catches and at least 1,400 receiving yards:
Deebo Samuel (2021) – 77 receptions, 1,405 receiving yards
Brandon Lloyd (2010) – 77 receptions, 1,448 receiving yards
Randy Moss (2000) – 77 receptions, 1,437 receiving yards
Mike Quick (1983) – 69 receptions, 1,409 receiving yards
Basically, Samuel produced a season that happens about once every 10 to 15 years. Do we actually think with an inexperienced, less accurate quarterback under center and with all those other weapons, that he can repeat those numbers?
Samuel finished the 2021 season with 772 yards after the catch on 77 catches. That’s a simple math problem letting us know he had 10 yards after the catch per reception. That’s a crazy number that simply won’t happen again. Samuel had just 70 fewer yards after the catch than Kupp, even though Kupp had 70 MORE RECEPTIONS THAN SAMUEL.
Count me out on Samuel this year at his ADP, and my money is where my mouth is on this one. I have zero exposure to Samuel on any of my seasonal leagues, and I have only 3% exposure in all my dozens of Underdog Best Ball teams.
How Will This All Work?
The column each week will be broken down into several sections. The first will always be a look at the top market share of air yards leaders for that week. Who is earning the majority of their teams’ air yards and is it sustainable?
We will then look in the next section at the top 20 in total air yards and try to identify intriguing players or trends that might fit into our fantasy needs at that time.
Next, we will use impossibly small, one-week sample sizes to try and identify positive and negative regression candidates in the weeks ahead. A fool’s errand, you say? We will see.
Lastly, we will look at players who received fewer than 30 air yards in their game and try to figure out what exactly happened there and why they were shut out.
I’m All Out of Yards, I’m So Lost Without You
Each week, I’ll Air Supply the air yards data (there are several sources) and recommendations for how to make that information actionable. If you ever have players you would like to see more in-depth or have thoughts on how to use air yards for useful fantasy decisions, my comments and DMs are always open. Hit me up at @KirkseySports on Twitter. I have found air yards to be one of the more useful fantasy tools in my tool belt and have no problem loaning those tools out for your own projects.
Join me here next Thursday as we dig into the air yards and actionable information from the first week of games!